WHILE 5 INCHES of snow blows coldly through the streets of Minneapolis, the 17-piece band on the stage of the new Target Center arena burns through polyrhythms of a more tropical clime.
Amid an aggregation of musicians from Brazil and several different African countries, a Los Angeles-based gospel trio and sax man Michael Brecker, Paul Simon turns and directs the big band as its conductor and diminutive leader, swinging with the beat.
Like his record-breaking "Graceland" tour, which grew from an introduction to African sounds to what Simon calls "one groove after another," the new tour, which comes to the Baltimore Arena Tuesday and the Capital Centre in Landover Wednesday, has also become "more and more rhythmical."
In a dressing room interview between the sound check and his show, Simon recalled the leap from "Graceland" to the even more percussive "The Rhythm of the Saints" tour.
After the "Graceland" tour, he said, "I did one track on a Milton Nascimento album. And that's how Brazil came into the picture. He said, 'Have you ever been to Brazil?'"
He recalls that Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour and members of his band, who helped on percussion on "Graceland," told him that the best drummers were in West Africa and Brazil.
"So I went down to make some drum tracks to see whether or not I wanted to pursue it. That's how I began with the drums in the spring of '88."
Drums have always played a big part in Simon's career. It was a drum track and electric guitar over-dub by producer Tom Johnson that turned his acoustic duet with Art Garfunkel, "The Sounds of Silence," into a No. 1 hit in 1965 and began Simon's long, successful career.
A military drum beat dominated his 1976 song, "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," his only No. 1 hit in his solo career. And the startling snap of Brazilian percussion sparks "The Obvious Child," the single that opens both the new album and the tour.
For a bookish writer who distinguished his early folk songs with literary references, Simon, 48, says the music now comes first.
Only after he has completed instrumental tracks does he add the lyrics. But, he added, "if I have a nice line, I'll try and find a song where the rhythm of that line will be appropriate to the phrase to a song."
Simon's much-praised writing is less direct and sometime abstract these days, as he frequently chooses words for their sound rather than their meanings.
"It's a lot about the sound. And a combination of random elements and associated ideas. You introduce random elements you can't start with anything preconceived. Then you see what thoughts the random element produces, and that way you begin to find out what's on your mind."
While "Graceland" quite literally lifted South African rhythms ansounds, "Rhythm" creates a new sound from disparate sources -- drums of Brazil, guitar of Africa, a snippet of '50s American doo-wop.
"There's a lot of trial and error," Simon said. "One of the first things I did early on was to get taped drum tracks -- just a lot of drums, no song or anything -- and then take the Ladysmith Black Mombazo recording and combine the two.
"Of course, a lot of it sounded like it was out of rhythm and didn't fit. But every once in a while it would be perfect."
The introduction of Brazilian and African elements are not meant to introduce listeners to different points on the globe.
"These are different cultural references," he said. "And not just different cultures from different geographical places around the globe, but different cultures from different time periods in my life -- U.S. culture. Because the songs, they're U.S. culture."
And U.S. culture -- and rock 'n' roll -- he explained, is a result of world music. "The roots of rock 'n' roll are in Africa and in the Appalachian Mountains, and the sounds of the Appalachian Mountains are related to Celtic music and English music. New Orleans music has a direct line with Caribbean cultures, and Caribbean cultures are connected to Brazil, and Brazil is connected to West Africa, and they're all connected to West Africa. And there are other elements from other cultures.
"So rock 'n' roll was really a combination of cultural elements anyway. As is most of American culture. All American popular culture, it seems to me, is people reinventing things from different cultures that exist or existed."
As for today's rock, Simon begs off commenting. "I can't really say that I pay enough attention to be able to make an observation. I don't even know what rock 'n' roll is any more."
His personal listening is kept largely to Brazilian and African music or old rock 'n' roll. But he says he would listen to new recordings by "a few of my contemporaries who are friends of mine." Among them: Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne and, after a pause, Bob Dylan -- "guys I knew from way back."
But of contemporary artists, he can name only Prince, whose name may be on his mind because there's a good chance he might show up after the Minneapolis performance.